For a hot 22-year-old major league baseball star, the first week of April ought to be a time of expectation and promise. But Mark Fidrych's April Fool's Day present was no joke. On March 31st, at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, he was operated on for a torn cartilage in his left knee. And as a result, he probably won't pitch until the first week in June — which means his sophomore season will begin almost exactly a year after he first hit the spotlight.
Fidrych tore up his knee while shagging flies in the training-camp outfield on March 22nd. It was initially thought that the injury was minor. But when he attempted to run on March 29th, it was clear that the problem was more serious. He was talking to a photographer on the sidelines, explaining how short-lived an athlete's career is, and as he worked out his knee popped in and out of joint several times. The next evening he flew to Detroit, where he was given the bad news.
Steve Pinkus, Mark's agent at William Morris, attempted to set up a conference call between the three of us on March 31st, as Mark was settling down in the hospital to wait. But Fidrych didn't feel he could speak. Although, according to Pinkus, the doctors were confident that the injury would not be a recurrent problem, The Bird was clearly depressed and not a little worried. Through Pinkus, Mark sent word that he wasn't really sure what he felt. Although the doctors said he would be out for eight to ten weeks, Fidrych said he thought he'd make it back sooner.
Somehow, Mark Fidrych just doesn't fit. It's not that he's surly (hard-ly), or even that his 6' 3", 175-pound body looks like the result of mating Harpo Marx with Stanley Laurel. Among baseball players, Yankee catcher Thurman Munson is the champ of sullenness, mean enough to bite the ears off one of Catfish Hunter's hounds; in contrast, Fidrych is an effervescent adolescent; it's one of the reasons he and Munson have a minor feud going. And if you think Fidrych looks weird, you ought to see Al Hrabosky of St. Louis, the Raskolnikov of relief pitchers, whose appearance must guarantee skin searches at airports throughout the world.
But Mark Fidrych is strange in ways that a haircut, a beer belly and a bad attitude wouldn't help. At 22, he is the Big Bird, after his Sesame Street lookalike, an All-Star, 1976 Rookie of the Year, after winning 19 games for the Detroit Tigers, a team which escaped last place only because of his strong right arm; he's also the American League's earned run average leader (meaning that he allowed the fewest scores per inning pitched of any player in the league), despite the fact that he pitched for the league's second-worst defensive team.
Ordinarily, such credentials would force others to adapt to Fidrych. But his style is singular in baseball. A game which, in any case, doesn't place great value on singular style. Statistics are the métier of the sport; all else threatens to fiddle with tradition.
Consider the role of the pitcher as developed through 100 years of professional baseball. More than any other individual in team sport, he is isolated, standing alone at the very center of the infield. Moreover, it is considered an omen of great importance should anyone else violate the bare dirt mound he occupies in the midst of the grass. Let a catcher or infielder walk over to confer, and you know there's trouble brewing. If a coach or manager approaches the mound twice in any inning, the pitcher is shamed, and must leave the game. So most pitchers react to this potential for true, personal embarrassment cautiously: between innings they walk slowly, carefully, between the dugout and the mound. Once there, they stall, manicuring the mound with their spikes, making sure each pebble is just so before considering and, finally, pitching. As a result, most baseball games last two and a half hours or more. It is the stately role of the pitcher which causes this; all other players must hustle — it is the game's cardinal virtue. But the pitcher must be solemn, almost priestly in his art.
Fidrych destroys all this. He is a bundle of twitches and tics. He runs — never walks — to the mound and back after each half inning. To landscape the mound, he will get down on his hands and knees, digging a bit here, filling in a bit there. After any better than average defensive play, he rushes around shaking his infielders' hands. After a strikeout, rather than turning his back and rubbing the ball, gloatingly, he'll leap from the mound, shaking his fist in triumph. When a ball is hit, he rejects it, as if to punish it: "It's got a hit in it," he explains. He jogs the 60 feet 6 inches to home plate to deliver the offending missile to the umpire: "Let it get back in the bag and goof around with the other balls." And of course, when the ball is satisfactory or unproven, he chatters to it, convincing the sphere to work his will. Nonetheless, he pitches rapidly: the Tigers average two hours, 18 minutes per game, ten minutes less than the American League average. Fidrych finished most of his games five to ten minutes quicker than that, several of them in less than two hours. On or off the mound, he is not a contemplative kid.
Fidrych is a certified flake, in the grand tradition of double-talking Casey Stengel, Lefty Gomez (who used to halt games to gaze up at airplanes flying overhead) and Jimmy Piersall, whom fear almost struck out. But none of these other flakes ever doubled home attendance or increased it drastically on the road. (Fidrych drew more than 900,000 fans in 1976.) No one else ever drew two-hour-long lines of autograph hounds to a meaningless, late-season series in Anaheim. And certainly, none of them ever played for the league's minimum salary ($19,000 plus a $7500 bonus for rapid advancement), and even if they had, they wouldn't have rejected a raise on the grounds that more money might mean less magic. Nobody in any sport has ever done that. But then, no athlete ever earned standing-ovation encores as Fidrych did after his nationally televised seven-hitter against the Yankees last June 28th in Motown.
Indeed, it's hard to explain how rare such an occurrence is. When sporting events are over, they're over. The teams head for the dressing room, and unless they're going to ravage the field itself — pull down the goal posts, cut off the nets, rip up the bases — fans head for the exits. But in Detroit last June, the fans wouldn't leave. They stood and chanted "Bird! Bird!" for ten minutes, while down in the tunnel leading to the clubhouse, Fidrych adamantly refused to go out. But teammates Rusty Staub and Mickey Stanley, old pros, convinced him that he had to. And when he'd gone out to doff his cap to the 40,000, they still wouldn't leave. "Bird! Bird!" the shouts went on. ABC kept its cameras fixed. Out he came again. And finally once more, for an interview with the broadcasters. No one could believe it. It simply isn't done.
That game broke The Bird wide open. The next day, Mark Fidrych (Fid-rich) was a name on the twisted tongues of the nation. Myths and legends immediately surrounded him. He had come from nowhere to make the Tiger roster in spring training and the night he got the news that he'd be going north with the big club, he grabbed a girlfriend, and climbed the fence on the Lakeland, Florida, training ground where they fucked on the mound at midnight. Not your standard sports legend.
But Fidrych refused to be an ordinary athlete. Although he was clearly the biggest star baseball had known since Mickey Mantle retired, his effect was not on the way the game was played. Seventeen-year-old Bobby Orr had arrived from a frozen Ontario tank town to change the face of ice hockey as the first offensive defenseman. Johnny Unitas' clutch passing cracked football wide open in the TV market. The simple size of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain forced rule changes in basketball. But Fidrych operated with the most basic and ancient pitching skill of all: the ability to throw low, hard fastballs precisely. Maybe that was revolutionary around the turn of the century when Walter Johnson hit the scene. Not now. No, The Bird cult was built on personality; talent just kept it alive.
Many denied that it was real. Some said it was just another freak show which further cheapened a sport on which television already had a lien. Some said it was a hoax, that Fidrych twitched and crooned to the ball, gave rambling, ingenuous interviews simply as part of an act. But then, why didn't he want more money, the sine qua non of showbiz sports? Others said it wouldn't last — Fidrych defeated every team in the league at least once, five of them twice, Cleveland four times. Maybe he was on drugs, others suggested. Fidrych had a reply for that: "They're paying to see me and they say I'm on drugs?" (When Tiger farm system director Hoot Evers asked him if he ever smoked pot, Fidrych responded, "I don't need it.") Anyway, all the evidence pointed to a relatively clean-cut kid; at 21, practically a mama's boy. His hyperactivity was almost certainly metabolic; in elementary school it had set him back two years.
If it wasn't a fake and it wasn't a fluke, what the hell was it? Remembering another mama's boy, who'd grown up in Tupelo, Mississippi, instead of Northboro, Massachusetts, and had become a national phenomenon about the time Mark Fidrych was born, I took a guess. It was only rock & roll, I figured. And America loved it.
I set out to prove the point last summer, but somehow we kept missing one another. The problem boiled down to Mark's odd sleeping habits — up at 2 p.m., in bed god knows when — plus the problem with his phone. He didn't have one. "Who would I call?"
His reluctance to get a phone wasn't a ploy to ensure his privacy. Baseball security lacks the advanced machinations of rock's, where 300-pound bodyguards are de rigueur and status is partially measured by how large a cortege one carries. Fidrych lived simply on the road, registered in big-league fleabags under his real name. At home, he had a bachelor apartment in Southgate, a modest Michigan suburb.
"That was a zoo," he recalled in his New England twang. "Can you imagine? Little kids found out my address and then everyone found out. People follow you home from the ballpark. You don't know that someone's followin' ya, and then all of a sudden there is. Ya know?
"During the day, it's little kids, 'cause everyone else has to work. But at night, you get guys my age. 'Hey Mark, wanna have a few beers?' Here you are, comin' into your apartment, three o'clock in the morning, and all of a sudden there's probably ten people sitting in the stairway. "One time, man, my friend got brought up, right? We're all sitting around, three of us that played Triple A, we're all sittin' together — me, Mark Wagner and Eddie Glynn. We're all sittin' there and Eddie says: 'Man, you got no breathin' room! Listen to 'em!' You know, people are out there in the hallway. He goes, 'Goddamn! Listen to that.' Knockin' at the door.
"Finally he says, 'That's it. I was thinkin' about stayin' here. For the ten days I'm up, I'm getting myself a hotel room. I want some sleep.' He ran over and kicked the door, says, 'Get the fuck outta here. 'Cause we want some sleep!'" Fidrych is laughing now. "Right? And some kid in the hall just makes a wisecrack. It was weird. He says, 'How could you hack this the whole year? I been here three hours and I can't hack it."'
He made it through because of the same amazing concentration he displays on the mound; all those strange moves may distract the batter, but not Mark. "No one can touch you, you're out there saying, 'Fuck you, people, you can't come get me now.'" It was the same with the apartment. "I just let it go. I pushed it aside. And I said, next year, I'm gonna get a little bit quieter place."
And then he fantasizes, more or less the same fantasy you've heard from a dozen rock stars. He'll buy some land, fix it up, work on it in the daytime, relax with friends at night. But there's a twist. He grins. "Have a mine field out there. Put up a sign: Go Ahead, Come in my yard. But you're gonna get blown up. If it really gets like that again this year, that's what I'll have to do."
In a way, it was just as well we didn't talk last year. It was fascinating to read the other stories (there were dozens), particularly those written by sportswriters in the dailies. Clearly, Fidrych was good copy, but there often was an undercurrent of hostility. By rejecting the doubleknit leisure suits Tigers manager Ralph Houk and general manager Jim Campbell got for the jeans-only Fidrych after he made the team, he had rejected the aesthetics of the press box. There was also his omnipresent tape recorder, which blasted Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker, the Who and Grateful Dead nonstop. And Fidrych speaks in rock slang, with plenty of profanity. Stripped of his idiom, he often seemed a clown, a savant or a moron. Which he definitely is not: morons don't acquire William Morris Agency representation so quickly. ("They're pimps," teammate Rusty Staub said last summer. "But they're great pimps.")
"I've done the best I could possibly do, not winning games, but in popularity," Fidrych says. He seems a little hurt by assertions that he isn't aware of this. "I could win 20 games, but it won't be the same this year, the enthusiasm, the way it exploded. People are gonna come to the ballpark and all that, but it isn't gonna be like a madhouse anymore, you know what I mean? People don't think I know — I know that. I know how to handle it now, press interviews and all that. So it won't be a zoo for me. People don't think I know what's goin' on. I fuckin' know what's goin' on. If I didn't, I wouldn't be here. Right?"
Fidrych was born to Paul and Virginia Fidrych on August 14th, 1954, in Worcester, Massachusetts. The family soon moved to nearby Northboro, where Mark's father taught school. It was the father who was the baseball fan. Mark liked playing the game, but didn't learn much about its heroes. (As late as last season he had never heard of Roger Maris and was cloudy about whether Mickey Mantle was still playing.) Mark had to repeat first and second grades; he was a hyperactive child before that problem had been defined. Because of his age, he wasn't allowed to compete in his senior year at Northboro's Algonquin High. So Paul got him into Worcester Academy, a private school, and paid the tuition with a bank loan.
Fidrych was a good athlete in high school, playing basketball and football in addition to baseball. But he wasn't a star, although he won more than his share of games, including some against college freshman teams from Harvard and other local universities. Still, no one seems to have scouted him: he was offered no athletic scholarships. He was accepted by a two-year engineering program at Highlands University in New Mexico.
Somewhere along the line, one scout — Joe Kusick of the Detroit Tigers — did spot him, although Mark didn't know it. Kusick liked what he saw: Fidrych had good speed, fine control, and the sort of lithe, rangy body that wouldn't grow thick and heavy with age. So Kusick encouraged the Tigers to draft him in the June 1974 free-agent raffle, which they did on the tenth round. No hurry, since there was no competition.
The story goes that Fidrych was working in a gas station when he was told he had been drafted by the Tigers. That's not quite true. "It was a place that rebuilds gas stations, putting in big gas tanks, and does the piping for factories. That's what I would have been doing. I got out of school on Friday, started the job on Monday, and I worked for three bucks an hour. Weird! Three bucks an hour! I got to be crazy not to sign the paper, right?"
He lasted a week. And, although the story is true that he didn't believe he'd been drafted when first told, the details, as he told them to me, are a bit richer.
"Friday, I got in my Barracuda and came to work. Like, the baseball draft was that night. I didn't pay any attention to it at all. You might think I'm stupid, but to me, I said, baseball is all over, unless I go to Highlands University, right? It was hang up the spikes.
"So here I am at work. My friend comes flyin' in on his motorcycle, throws me the paper and says, 'Hey, turn to the sports section, you were tenth-round draft.' I went: 'Yeah. Fuck you. Kiss my ass.' I'm sweepin' the garage, you know?
"It was true. My father comes flyin' up in his car. He goes, 'Hey, tell 'em you're not workin' anymore. Take the day off.' I said no, I'd work the rest of the day. I still didn't believe it. I said, 'I didn't sign no paper, I ain't gettin' excited yet.' And then the guy [Joe Kusick] called me up Saturday, and I said, 'Hey, you come down here Sunday, and I'll be sittin' here waitin' for ya. I don't care what time you come — you can come right now if you want.' He said okay. He came right over. I was waitin' for him. I met him at the door with the pen in my hand."
Fidrych says he didn't even know he was good. "No one talks to ya. No school asked me to play for 'em. And you're playin' good schools, we were playin' Harvard and all those other college teams. They just found no use in me. So Detroit found a use for me. I signed the paper and Monday I was on the field in a Detroit Tigers uniform. I said, 'Well, let's get the season goin'. I'm ready.'"
His first assignment was to Bristol, Tennessee, in the rookie league. Fidrych says he played great and had a great time, one of the best of his life; it was the first time he'd ever had an apartment of his own, for one thing. But almost immediately, it became clear that his would be no ordinary career.
"There were these three black people who lived in a trailer park, man. I felt sorry for 'em. They had to come down a hill, and you gotta make a sharp turn, either that or you go over, through a fence and down another hill, into a guy's cornfield. So here's a car comin', it was about 1:30, two o'clock at night, I'm sleepin', me and this other guy. All of a sudden: Crash! Bam! Whoa! Jump up — this car actually rolled down the hill. It went through the fence — she said she couldn't make the corner, she said her brakes went, but she was gone, she coulda made the corner.
"But the kid, he was just a little kid, he was hurt pretty bad. Mother had a big gash in her throat, and her husband was down there, he was busted up — I don't know, somethin' got busted on him. My friend went down there, and the little kid was screamin'.
"All of a sudden, everything was just quiet. We thought the little kid died, man, just let out his last scream and died. My friend touched the kid, picked him up, brought him up and like the kid wasn't even doin' nothin', you know. Just lyin' there, not even movin'. We put him in my bed, and all of a sudden, the kid just woke up, man. The kid started pukin' blood all over my bed. I went, 'Oh! His insides are comin' out.' I thought his insides were really comin' out, just the way the junk was comin' up. This kid was hurtin', man.
"And then his mother ruined it, man. 'Where's my kid?' She comes runnin' in, runnin' after me. 'You whitey, whadda you doin'?' Callin' me a whitey, man. I said, 'Hey, I'm helpin' your kid.' I ran into my friend's bedroom, right, shut his door, and she came flyin' at me and she almost knocked the door down. I was holdin', she was bangin' on it. Rescue team grabbed her, tried to strap her down. She's running around like a raving maniac. She went up to a black person: 'My kid, my child, he might be dead.' Black guy goes, well, you should learn how to drive. That lady went nuts. 'You meanie! You're all alike, all you men!' She starts beatin' on 'im. He goes, get outta here, lady, and pushes her. The guy had no mercy whatsoever."
Was that typical? "It was just one exciting night. It was exciting, man. It was something you'd read in a book."
At Bristol, he was 3-0, pitching 34 innings, all in relief. In 1975, he moved up a rung, to Class A, at Lakeland, Florida, where he started for three months and was only 5-9, with a weak team. The meal money was only $3 a day, and Fidrych often had to hitchhike home after night games. Once he was picked up by his manager on the way back from the beach, a rather unmistakable figure in the inevitable jeans and sneakers, but without a shirt, and with an angry sunburn. "Just my luck," Mark said, "to be picked up by the coach." In order not to damage his confidence, the Tigers shipped Mark up to AA Montgomery, Alabama, where he threw in relief, and a coach finally noticed. The hair, the beak, the angular frame, the strangely high-pitched voice. Thus, he became "The Big Bird," a moniker he never had to work hard to live up to. But his stay at Montgomery was short-lived. After two weeks, an injury forced a roster shuffle, and Fidrych was promoted to AAA Evansville, Indiana. He arrived fresh from a road trip with a suitcase full of clothes, but nonetheless saved up his increased meal money ($10 a day) and blew it all on clothes.
At Evansville, he was a starter again, compiling a 4-1 record and 1.59 ERA (an ERA under 3.00 is considered exceptional), winning a game 2-1 over Omaha, which clinched the American Association pennant, and losing 1-0 to Tidewater in the Junior World Series.
Before the Omaha game, he told his manager to buy a case of champagne. "Tonight, we celebrate," said The Bird. "Tonight, if we don't win," replied the manager, "I break every bottle over your head."
But almost no one would have predicted that Fidrych would be a big leaguer in 1976. Baseball does not use colleges as a training ground, unlike most other professional sports: the game relies on such intricate, specialized skills that it has its own development system — the farm team networks which comprise the minor leagues. It begins with the rookie and winter instructional leagues, and proceeds through classes A, AA and AAA before reaching the majors. (Even this process is trimmed down from the one which existed 20 years ago, when the stages were D, C, B, A, AA, AAA). Consequently, most players who reach the big leagues have between three and five years of minor league experience.
Even Fidrych didn't think he'd get away with any less. "When I was in Bristol, I'm thinking A ball. You have to go A, Double A, Triple A. When I was in Triple A, I said, okay, now we have to make the majors." Certainly, his stats in spring training were not impressive; his earned run average was over 4.00. "You figure, you throw nine innings, right?" Bird explains. "You throw three against the Red Sox and they get seven runs and you only have six to compensate. So there's no way."
Was he worried about getting bombed by the Sox? "I was flipping. Especially, here it is on TV back to your hometown. My friends were all in the bar, laughing their heads off."
His most noticeable acts in spring training involved personality, of course. Told to get a haircut, he returned with a bill for $5 — which the Tigers refused to pay. His attire caused consternation: one pair of worn jeans, a single blue shirt and sneakers so malodorous that farm director Hoot Evers offered to have them bronzed just to get them out of the clubhouse.
But the word was out on Fidrych. The Tigers and Astros talked trade, and Fidrych was the first minor leaguer the Astros tried to obtain.
Fidrych impressed people in several ways in the early season. First, his concentration was total. In a way, his eccentric mannerisms were simply devices for keeping his attention focused, although even off the mound the chatter went on — Ralph Houk finally requested that when Bird wasn't pitching, he sit at the far end of the bench, so the manager could think.
Secondly, he was enormously supportive of his teammates, and they of him. Rusty Staub and Mickey Stanley, two of the oldest pros on the team, looked out for Bird, advising him as the pressures increased. It was Staub who convinced him to accept the encore after the victory over the Yanks. For his part, Fidrych insisted that he wasn't doing it on his own — it was only the fact that his teammates gave him such great support that pulled him through.
But the pattern of his defeats contradicted his claim. Fidrych's first three losses were all beautifully pitched games. In Boston, he lost 2-0 to Luis Tiant, one of the league's premier starters. Against Kansas City, although Bird claimed he had "horseshit" control, he scattered nine hits over the distance, minimizing Kansas City's scoring ability, but still lost 1-0.
The third loss came against the Orioles. The opposing pitcher was Rudy May, who'd just come over from the Yanks. Both he and Mark pitched fine games, six-hitters. Fidrych struck out eight so convincingly that several Orioles left the plate shaking their heads in wonder. The game might have gone on all night, it seemed, except for the Orioles' fourth.
After an opening strikeout, Bobby Grich and Lee May put together back-to-back singles. Then Ken Singleton grounded to second, for what looked like an inning-ending double play. But second baseman Pedro Garcia threw home, trying to nab Grich, who was threatening to score. Grich was nabbed in the ensuing rundown, but it was a bonehead play.
Tony Muser, who should have led off the next inning, walked, loading the bases. And then Mark Belanger bounced another sure out right at Garcia. But Garcia bobbled the ball and by the time he found the handle, May had scored with all the runs his brother would need. (Rusty Staub tripled with one out in the bottom half of the inning, but the next two balls were hit right at the third baseman.) So Fidrych had lost a game in which he had not given up a single earned run, had gone the distance and struck out eight, his personal high. But he refused to accept the pleas of the crowd, which chanted "Bird! Bird! Bird!" for ten minutes. Bring me the head of Pedro Garcia.
So it was as much for being the gutsy loser as a big winner that America loved Fidrych. Detroit is a town for fanatics anyway — ask rock bands like the Who and Kiss. Or meet Frank Score, a 29-year-old unemployed lithographer from the working-class suburb of East Detroit. Score is no fanatic. He isn't even terribly imaginative. In some ways, he is probably the classic baseball fan, the kind who has sustained the sport for a hundred years in American culture. But at three o'clock on each day Fidrych was to pitch, Score would drive across town to Tiger Stadium wearing a yellow feathered jump suit. Arriving at the ballpark, he would walk to the players' entrance and, placing a two-foot-high papier-mache head over his own, would become: The Big Bird. Waving at passing cars, chatting with fans. Every night, despite the fact that he had to pay his way into the park. The Tigers refused to give him a pass, although this strange creature stalking the stands had gained them considerable free publicity.
It cost Score $30 a game for his costume, which is a thought-provoking figure even for someone not on unemployment. "The neighbors think I'm kinda outta it," he admitted. But, he said, he would keep on, whether or not the Tigers cooperated. The Bird was the greatest thing to hit this dull, stranded metropolis since the recession set in. Why? He wasn't really sure.
Neither was I. There were plenty of other stylish athletes around, of course. But most of them were black (O.J. Simpson, Walt Frazier, Reggie Jackson) and the white ones, epitomized by Joe Namath, were often simply squares with $30 haircuts. Bill Walton had some semblance of rock style, but he was too puritanical, with his vegetarianism and left connections. Fidrych embodied rock & roll by being a throwback. Ten years ago, the sporting establishment would never have accommodated his nervy mannerisms, much less his attire and hair. But before (long before) rock & roll, ballplayers were the great eccentrics: Babe Ruth screwing and eating his way through the front pages like a behemoth Keith Richard; Joe DiMaggio as moody as any platinum-record prima donna; Ty Cobb ripping and slashing his way down the base paths like Ted Nugent in spikes. And finally Jackie Robinson, who ripped down the edifice of sport as surely as Elvis Presley changed the face of entertainment.
In both cases, of course, it remained for others to complete the job. But that wasn't Fidrych's role — any given players' agent had done more to change baseball's structure. Mark just brought it all back home, made the connections clear.
In the winter, he and his father renegotiated his contract, a three-year deal with escalations, beginning in 1977 for about $75,000. William Morris stayed out of it — Fidrych insisted on using them for non-baseball deals only. (Compare his contract to Wayne Garland's, another pitcher with one fine season — 20 games won — who took the free-agent route and hooked up with the Indians for $2 million.) Fidrych was unconcerned. "It's enough to live on for a job, right? I go home and my friends don't make a third of what I make. If they can live on what they're making, why can't I?"
There are, of course, side benefits. He did an Aqua Velva commercial, which he enjoyed. "They know I'm no good, and I know I'm no good," he says happily. He seems amazed that it took three or four hours, and a thousand feet of film, to get a 30-second spot. "They probably won't even show it." (So far, they haven't.)
He sat down with poet Tom Clark (who wrote a book about the A's last year) to tape an "as-told-to" biography, which should be published soon. "I haven't read it yet. It's all done. It's just..." He hesitates. "My agent went through it. The agent said there were too many swears in it, but he said that other than that it's a good book. I'm dying to see it. "
They want you to write a book about yourself, so him and I just sat down and talked, and he writes it the way I say, just because he's got good English, right? So why should there be any need for changing it? If they want a book about yourself, then this is it. People are going to take it."
It's as close as he'll come to revolt. He spent the winter making speeches on the rubber-chicken circuit. It was unpleasant: "One guy said to me as I was getting up to do a speech, 'You're tight at this? There are only 300 people out there. What happens with 50,000 people?' I said, 'Then I'm doing a job I know how to do.' It's like a band — they know how to play their music, so they just go out and present it. I know how to play baseball."
The banquet circuit robbed him of any chance for a vacation. Ask him why he didn't just take off, he speaks baseball cant: "They say the fans pay your salary." Well who pays Dylan's or Jagger's?
"That is true," he says, as though struck by revelation. "They can tell a person to buzz off, where if I tell a person to buzz off, it gets plastered all over the papers. That's a weird question but it's true...." He grins. "No more speeches for athletic people. Rock & roll people don't do it, we don't have to do it." He reconsiders. "You got to at least do it for your town, though. Because without them, you wouldn't be there."
He resents missing his vacation, though. Or maybe he's more wistful than resentful. "I was never home for three weeks, say, where I could just say, 'Hey! I'm goin' to California, goin' to Europe.' I'd like to go back to Europe sometime. I was there when I was 17. Me and my buddy just got off the plane and said, 'Now where do we go?' Grabbed a cab and went to Amsterdam, right in the center, found a place for five bucks a day ... I'd love to do that again ... but I'd probably stay in the same place. It was clean, the bed was good and the people were nice."
In mid-February Fidrych finally got his vacation; that's when we finally met. The sponsors of the Johnny Walker Cup, the all-star softball game played at Innisbrook Country Club near Tampa, had invited him to Florida a week before spring training. (There were two tickets. He has no steady girl, so he offered the other one to his agent's secretary. She couldn't get the time off.) "Nice vacation!" he snorts. "A reporter just left before you came. Then this guy just called and wanted to do another one." But we sat and talked for a couple of hours in a room that was a shambles: unmade bed, golf clothes (he played a round every day, shooting in the low 100s) and other attire strewn from the half-empty suitcase on the couch, through the bedroom. A roaring cassette (Lynyrd Skynyrd), surrounded by a batch of other, homemade tapes: a single Joni Mitchell LP amidst Elton John, the Who, Marshall Tucker, more Skynyrd, lots of Grateful Dead. The handwriting on the cassette boxes was sloppy, childish, but belied Fidrych's 1976 boast that he couldn't read. He paces as he talks, gulping ice water, padding barefoot in green velour bathrobe and Levi's. It's like any and every touring rock star's hotel room.
What really convinced me he's for real is the softball game. He's the buzz in the crowd: gets a bigger hand than Johnny Bench, Tom Seaver or Jim Palmer, when they're all introduced. Fidrych pitches five innings, slow-pitch, blooper-balls, tossed underhand without any great effect. When Bench comes to bat the first time, he talks to his bat, then pounds the Bird's next pitch over the left-field fence. Next time Bench comes up, Fidrych looks awed — then falls to his knees and salaams. When Fidrych leaves, after pitching five of the seven innings, the American League is ahead. Jim Palmer replaces him, the NL team swarms back and only a two-out homer by Boston's Jim Rice pulls the game out. Not that it mattered.
Afterward, the largest group of autograph seekers surrounds Fidrych. I walk up, thinking to speak to him, then turn away. He's handling it well. He knows what's going on. And I remember what he'd told me about going home to Northboro this winter.
"My friend goes, 'Boy I had a good time this summer. Went camping and stuff. You ought to go camping with us once in a while... What did you do all summer?'" I said, 'I don't know, I didn't do anything. Just played a little baseball.'"